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Xi urges self-reliance in New Year's Eve address

Xi, Trump exchange messages vowing to boost cooperation despite trade war

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) gestures to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a meeting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of China's reform. This year also marks 70 years since Mao Zedong led the Communist Party to power, which underscores the urgency that Mr Xi faces in turning around stalled growth and investor confidence, while pushing forward an agenda of political reform.

Beijing

THE presidents of China and the US have exchanged messages vowing to boost cooperation despite a bruising trade war on the 40th anniversary of the countries' diplomatic relations, Chinese state media reported.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington soared in 2018 over trade disputes, although US President Donald Trump has frozen the latest planned tariff hike and on Saturday reported "big progress" after a call with his counterpart Xi Jinping.

In the messages sent on Tuesday, Mr Xi underlined the importance of working with the US "to advance China-US relations featuring coordination, cooperation and stability", state news agency Xinhua reported.

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According to Xinhua, Mr Trump praised the last four decades of diplomacy between China and the US, hailing his "solid friendship" with the Chinese leader.

Washington and Beijing imposed tit-for-tat tariffs on more than US$300 billion worth of goods in total two-way trade last year, locking them in a conflict that has begun to eat into profits and contributed to stock market plunges.

Mr Trump initiated the trade war because of complaints over unfair Chinese trade practices - concerns shared by the European Union, Japan and others.

Since the two leaders agreed on a truce on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting in Buenos Aires, however, there have been small signs of progress - and an absence of new threats from Mr Trump. A US delegation led by Deputy Trade Representative Jeffrey Gerrish is preparing for talks in Beijing next week that would test a tariff cease-fire established earlier in the month by the two sides. Mr Trump said that he and Mr Xi spoke at length, and that "big progress" is being made towards a deal.

China and the US established diplomatic relations on Jan 1, 1979, with Washington pledging to maintain only non-official ties with Taiwan.

In the same year, late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, often credited with China's "Reform and Opening" policy which led to its economic transformation, met US president Jimmy Carter in the United States.

Ties have improved dramatically from their Cold War nadir, though the two countries have since weathered ups and downs over a number of issues including Taiwan, human rights, and trade.

In December, China's major state-owned grain stockpiler said that it had resumed buying US soya beans, and Beijing announced that it would suspend extra tariffs on US-made cars and auto parts starting Jan 1.

In his annual New Year's Eve address to his people, Mr Xi stressed self-reliance amid "changes unseen in 100 years" as the country faced an economic slowdown and a more confrontational US.

Mr Xi stressed China's capacity to weather the storm, citing a series of industrial and technological achievements in 2018. He said that the government would keep growth from slowing too quickly and follow through on a tax cut as part of an effort "to ease the burden on enterprises". "Despite all sorts of risks and challenges, we pushed our economy towards high-quality development, sped up the replacement of the old drivers of growth, and kept the major economic indicators within a reasonable range," he said.

The speech followed reminders of Mr Xi's twin challenges: another dose of weak economic data on Monday and a phone call with Mr Trump on Saturday touching on their trade dispute. China's factories slid back into contraction territory in December, with the manufacturing purchasing mangers index dropping to 49.4.

This year marks 70 years since Mao Zedong led the Communist Party to power - a milestone that would surpass the Soviet Union. The anniversary underscores the urgency that Mr Xi faces in turning around stalled growth and investor confidence, while pushing forward an agenda of political reform that will strengthen his power.

The government launched over 100 reform measures in 2018, Mr Xi said on Monday, and stepped up efforts to improve standards of living. "Our people are the country's solid foundation and our main source of confidence to govern," he said.

A little less than a year since he scrapped term limits, clearing the path towards his indefinite rule, Mr Xi has seen his major initiatives - notably the Belt and Road trade and infrastructure programme - draw international backlash amid the unprecedented trade war.

Over the next few months, March's National People's Congress and April's Belt and Road Summit, both to be held in Beijing, could see the announcement of new regulations and investments meant to counter scepticism over Mr Xi's leadership.

China is already considering a new law on the practice of forced technology transfer that has drawn US ire, and stepped up internal scrutiny of Belt and Road as poorer countries adopt a more cautious approach to China's plans for what it regards as its backyard.

The country's growth is still slowing as it transitions from a high-growth, export-led model to a consumer-focused state. Top economic policymakers last week pledged to exact "significant" stimulus policies this coming year. AFP, WP